Recently, a senior Vietnamese official asked Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Phnom Penh if negotiations with ASEAN on a South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) would be completed by the end of the year. Mr Wang and his officials laughed it off, a Southeast Asian diplomat told me. A Vietnamese observer said he felt sorry for ASEAN. ‘They are just using the code of conduct to buy time.’
Chinese cynicism about the COC belies apparent progress. In August 2016—a month after the historic Hague ruling on Manila’s case against Beijing—ASEAN and China agreed on a hotline for maritime emergencies and a joint declaration applying the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea to the South China Sea. Last month, Mr Wang said a draft COC had been completed. China will host a meeting with ASEAN in May to come up with a preliminary agreement on a COC framework.
It’s important to note that China’s apparent willingness to accelerate talks on the code comes after 15 years trying to turn the 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) into a COC. But even if China and ASEAN agree on a COC, questions will remain over its effectiveness.